For our next distillery stop in Scotland, we decided to do a re-visit of a distillery we already briefly stopped at in 2012. At that visit, we only snapped some pictures from the exterior of the distillery and made a brief stop at the distillery shop This time, we had contacted the distillery beforehand and booked a tour at the distillery of the proud, cigar smoking stag. Coming down from the North of the Highlands along the A9, the signs pointing towards the Dalmore distillery are hard to miss, and before you know it you will find yourself in between the warehouses amongst the stacks of empty casks, passing the defunct but characteristic petrol pump, over viewing the Cromarty Firth with its low tides and occasional oil rig obstructing your view.
Back in 1839, Alexander Matheson must have seen something in this location when he made a bald move building a distillery in what was back than an isolated location instead of the busy Speyside region, where by that time roads and railways quickly developed the area into the capital of the whisky world as we know it today. In the 1860’s, the MacKenzie brothers ran the place until their company eventually took over the reigns from the Matheson family in the early 1890’s. During the first world war, the distillery was occupied by the Royal Navy, who manufactured American mines instead of spirit. Badly damaged, the distillery was put together again after the war, and in 1922, spirit started flowing again.
They abandoned the traditional floor maltings in the 1950’s, as many distilleries did in that period, but the Dalmore chose to replace the floor maltings with a Saladin Box instead of purchasing from the commercial maltsters. That is, until 1982, when malting in the Saladin Box was eventually abandoned as well. The ownership of the distillery changed in 1960 once more, when the family company consolidated with current owners Whyte and Mackay, who themselves have changed hands frequently in the past few decades, but the Dalmore never was up for sale during these changes. We would have loved to see the remnants of the Saladin Box, but because of the on-going refurbishments, there were only this much places we could visit.
Parking our car on the small lot at the side of the Firth, we could clearly see the ongoing maintenance of the place. Most of the grey buildings seemed to be covered in scaffolding, roofs were removed and walls were knocked down, everywhere we could see high-viz vests and hard hats, building equipment and rubble in all shapes and sizes, visible through the clouds of dust covering the terrain. One advantage to all of this; we could make pictures of everything we could see and reach within the borders of the yellow tape, including the stillhouse with the distillery’s peculiar stills, allowing us to have a unique look of the place while it was gutted open. First we had to wait for the group of visitors to be complete, giving us a moment to log on to the (for the area particularly well working) WiFi spot and update ourselves on social media and email.
The tour started in a large hall, where in between the dust and loud noises of the sawing and hammering of the builders, we could see the large painting of a 1263 battlefield picturing Colin of Kintail, Chief of Clan Mackenzie saving King Alexander III whose life was threatened by a charging stag during a hunting party. According to the distillery history books, he speared the stag in its forehead, shouting “Cuidich ‘n’ Righ” which translates to “Save the King” in Gaelic. As a sign of gratitude the Clan was awarded the lands of Eilean Donan and the right to bear a 12-pointed Royal Stag as their Mackenzie Clan crest including the use of the motto “Luceo Non Uro” (I Shine, Not Burn) were granted. Needless to say that until today, the owners of the distillery are proud to bear the motto, and still depict the emblem on their bottles of whisky.
So… Bored with the history yet? Let’s quickly move on to the distillery itself. From the noises in the reception hall with the painting of the deer in agony, we stepped through the door to the normally noisy, but now silent milling room. Greeted by the familiar sight of the burgundy coloured four-roller Porteus mill and its original destoner and screener on the levels above, we learned it is fed by seven 20-tonne malt bins, filling the huge, 9.88 tonne stainless steel mashtun three times a day. Together with fresh water from Loch Morie, eight hours later this results in a 48.500 litre clear wort, which is pumped into one of the eight Oregon Pine washbacks. 200 litres of liquid distillers yeast and 50 hours later, the wooden wash charger is filled before the liquid is transferred into one of the flat-topped wash stills.
We have seen flat-topped stills before on this trip at the Pulteney and Scapa distilleries, but the stills at the Dalmore come in four pairs, of which one pair is double in size of the other three, obviously the main reason they work with an unbalanced process and use chargers. The union shaped spirit still, with the tiniest boil ball imaginable, is equipped with a large water jacket (as we have only seen at Fettercairn), definitely giving the spirit more reflux than the tiny Fiat Multipla ribble boil ball will ever be able to do. Depending on the size of the still, they capture a broad heart of 83-61% abv, resulting in a new-make spirit around sixty-high, seventy-low, which is diluted to the industry standard 63.5% abv before being put to rest.
Outside of the distillery, we can spot the shell and tube condensers in between the scaffolding. Nothing special, since most distilleries nowadays work with similar systems, except the ones condensing the liquid from the spirit stills, which are mounted horizontally. It turns out, the distillery believes the condenser mimics the worm pipe which the distillery used to operate originally. Entering the warehouse complex – the only area we are not allowed to photograph, we get to see and smell a range of spirit in various strengths, before being explained all of the spirit of the Dalmore starts in an ex-Bourbon cask, before being finished in many different ex-Solera sherry, ex-Port and ex-Wine casks where the previous content has matured over long periods, in contrast to many different distilleries nowadays. Only ten percent of the single malt created at the distillery get to be bottled as “the Dalmore single malt”, and the rest of the matured spirit is used for the company’s own blends or is sold to other blenders and the occasional independent bottler.
It was great to finally see the distillery from the inside, and scratch it off of our distillery-bucket list. The whisky itself has never been exactly our cup of tea, and is targeted at a specific group of prosperous, cigar smoking consumers, and the distillery visitor’s centre has the same level of false exclusiveness. True exclusiveness, like the wooden receiver, the peculiar still shapes and sizes, the unconventional mounting of the condensers, the evolution of the spirit at the various strengths coming from the stills and the use of truly good wood are all there, but are barely touched, if even mentioned at all and most of the information we had to dig up ourselves.
Clearly we do not belong to this targeted audience with our dirty shoes and worn jackets, but nonetheless they tried to make the tour worth our while, even during these extensive refurbishments. Maybe because of these refurbishments, they lack a certain charm and warmth an we shall return in the future to see the distillery operate, but we will not quickly divert our route to make it happen. We did make some exclusive pictures of the distillery, so, as always, check out our Facebook page to see them and other pictures and stories of our travels.
On our next trip, we may try to arrange a trip to the neighbouring Teaninich and Invergordon distilleries, and do a revisit at the Glen Ord distillery, at which they have recently upgraded their maltings, something we are curious to see too some day. With this visit to the Dalmore, we ended our trip of the Northern Highlands distilleries and will scramble across the country to see some of the long overdue distilleries we either encounter on almost every trip but for some reason we never stopped at, or are so out of range that we have never had the chance to reach them. Next article, we will be on the road for a while and have an unplanned adventure on the way back before we reach Loch Ness, to see if Nessie is home.
Thomas & Ansgar
Copyright notice: Photos by WhiskySpeller